Devil-jack Diamond-fish

Variations: Diamond fish, Devil fish, Jack fish, Garjack, Litholepe, Litholepe adamantin, Litholepis adamantinus

Devil-jack Diamond-fish

John James Audubon is remembered today as an artist and ornithologist of considerable import. His practical jokes are less well known, and began with the unexpected arrival of Constantine Samuel Rafinesque at Hendersonville, Kentucky.

Rafinesque was a brilliant, enthusiastic, “exceedingly remarkable”, and very eccentric young naturalist who tested Audubon’s hospitality. After they had retired to bed, Audubon was roused by a commotion coming from Rafinesque’s room. As he describes it, “I saw my guest running naked, holding the handle of my favorite violin, the body of which he had battered to pieces in attempting to kill the bats which had entered the open window!” Rafinesque was convinced the bats were new species. Audubon was not amused.

Perhaps to avenge his smashed violin, Audubon decided to take advantage of Rafinesque’s credulity and eagerness to describe new species. He solemnly supplied Rafinesque with 10 drawings of completely fictitious fish, which were duly named and described in detail. The likes of the bigmouth sturgeon and the flatnose doublefin caused headaches for ichthyologists and tarnished Rafinesque’s reputation beyond repair.

The Devil-jack Diamond-fish (Litholepis adamantinus) is surely the most remarkable of those faux fishes, as evidenced by Rafinesque’s breathless description. This “wonder of the Ohio” is found only as far up as the falls and probably in the Mississippi as well. Rafinesque claimed to have seen it from a distance, and seen some of its scales, but otherwise he “principally relied upon the description and figure given [him] by Mr. Audubon”.

We are fortunate enough to have a complete and detailed description of the devil-jack. It is classified among the garfish but is quite unique. The body is blackish and fusiform, 4 to 10 feet long and up to 400 pounds in weight. The head takes up a fourth of the total length. The snout alone is large (as long as the head), convex above, and obtuse. The eyes are small and black, with the nostrils in front of them. The mouth is transverse and has large angular teeth. Dorsal and anal fins are of equal length, the tail is obtusely bilobed, and there is no lateral line. The body is covered in oblique rows of conical pentagonal brown scales, half an inch to one inch in diameter; they become the color of turtle shell when dried.

The scales are the devil-jack’s main claim to fame, as they are hard as flint, completely bulletproof, and repel hooks. They produce sparks when struck against steel. Only nets or the strongest hooks can take a devil-jack. It is inedible and a voracious hunter, usually seen lying motionless at the surface like a log. The scales are a miracle of nature, for “they strike fire with steel! and are ball proof!” [sic]

References

Jordan, D. S. (1886) Rafinesque. The Popular Science Monthly, June 1886.

Rafinesque, C. S. (1820) Ichthyologia Ohiensis. W. G. Hunt, Lexington, Kentucky.

Roperite

Variations: Rhynchoropus flagelliformis (Cox), Pseudoequus nasiretinaculi (Tryon)

Roperite

The Roperite is one of the few Fearsome Critters found outside the northern lumberwoods. Its home is in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada where the digger pine grows, and it tends to live in herds. An active and gregarious animal, it has not been seen in a while, and there is concern that it may already be extinct.

Roperite biology is a mystery. We know that it is the size of a small pony, and that it has a a remarkable rope-like beak which it uses to lasso its prey. Its skin is leathery and impervious to the thorn and rock of its chaparral habitat. Its legs are well-developed and flipper-like. A. B. Patterson of Hot Springs, CA,  reported a tail with a large set of rattles. It is unknown whether roperites are bipedal or quadrupedal, whether they are fish, fowl, or beast, and whether they lay eggs, give birth to live young, or emerge fully-formed from mountain caves. Local legend has it that they are the reincarnated ghosts of Spanish ranchers.

Roperites run at blistering speed. Their legs give them a gait halfway between bounding and flying. Nothing can outrun them, and no obstacle can slow them down. Even roadrunners are trampled or kicked aside. Roperites are predators that chase down their prey and lasso them with incredible dexterity, then proceed to drag their through thornbushes until they die. The rattles on the tail are used to impressive effect during the chase, intimidating quarry with a whirring din worthy of a giant rattlesnake. Jackrabbits and the occasional lumberjack are taken.

References

Brown, C. E. (1935) Paul Bunyan Natural History. Madison, Wisconsin.

Cox, W. T. (1910) Fearsome Creatures of the Lumberwoods with a Few Desert and Mountain Beasts. Judd and Detweiler, Washington D. C.

Tryon, H. H. (1939) Fearsome Critters. The Idlewild Press, Cornwall, NY.

Fearsome Critters

Variations: Fearsome Creatures, Paul Bunyan Creatures, Lumberjack Tall Tales, and so on

“Fearsome Critter” is a catchall term used for a mixed and problematic grouping of creatures. They are all said to hail from lumberjack tall tales, primarily from the American northern lumberwoods but including a few representatives from southern states. They share the same folkloric origin that gave us the likes of Paul Bunyan and Pecos Bill, but instead of folk heroes, they are said to be pranks, bogeys, stories told to frighten greenhorns and tenderfoots. Experienced lumberjacks can sit back and get a good laugh after sending someout out on a futile snipe hunt, or snicker to themselves as the newcomer starts checking behind him for a stalking hidebehind. The Australian drop bear is a non-American example of this sort of creature.

The term “fearsome critter” was used by Tryon as a title for his lumberwoods menagerie. “Fearsome creatures” is used by Cox, and predates Tryon’s “fearsome critters”, but the engagingly vernacular “critter” designation has proven more popular.

Almost all fearsome critters can be traced back to a handful of references. The oldest and most venerable is Cox’s Fearsome Creatures of the Lumberwoods with a Few Desert and Mountain Beasts from 1910. Borges’ excerpt of the Squonk entry ensured its fame among modern readers. Kearney collected several tales in his 1928 book The Hodag and other Tales of the Logging Camps, which takes a more narrative approach to the subject. The “Fauna of the United States” section in Borges’ book is traceable to Brown’s 1935 pamphlet Paul Bunyan Natural History. Finally, the spiritual successor of Fearsome Creatures was Tryon’s 1939 Fearsome Critters; both of these books illustrate each individual entry, and provide a mock Latin name for their critters. The Cox and Tryon books are the touchstones of fearsome critterology.

Fearsome critters as a group are not well unified or verified. Some have entered the public consciousness and cemented their folkloric status beyond any reasonable doubt (Rhinelander’s own Hodag, the dreaded Hoop Snake, the elusive Snipe). Others have become cryptids (the possibly-feline Santer), or were the subject of elaborate hoaxes (the Hodag again). Some may have more ancient roots in Native American folklore. And then some may be complete fabrications by Cox and Tryon.

With no references to speak of, Cox and Tryon’s accounts are hard to verify, unless corroborated by themselves and others. Cox’s description of the Hugag is almost entirely different from Tryon’s; in addition, it seems to be an Americanized retelling of Pliny’s Achlis. Cox gives a description of the Hodag that is completely at odds with the well-known one – was this an attempt at personalizing and “claiming” it, or a bona fide regional variation? Was Cox’s Snoligoster a completely reupholstered Snallygaster, with added casual racism? And, of course, it is unlikely that lumberjacks devised intricate Latin names for their critters.

Keeping all this in mind, it is hard to separate genuine lumberjack folklore and literary jokes. Inasmuch as they don’t exist either way, and that popular encyclopedias of teratology such as Rose’s works have brought them to a larger audience, they are covered in ABC, with doubts and reservations added where necessary. In cases where Latin names are given, the author will be specified unless they are single-referenced.

References

Borges, J. L.; trans. Hurley, A. (2005) The Book of Imaginary Beings. Viking.

Brown, C. E. (1935) Paul Bunyan Natural History. Madison, Wisconsin.

Cox, W. T. (1910) Fearsome Creatures of the Lumberwoods with a Few Desert and Mountain Beasts. Judd and Detweiler, Washington D. C.

Kearney, L. S. (1928) The Hodag and other Tales of the Logging Camps. Democrat Printing Company, Madison.

Tryon, H. H. (1939) Fearsome Critters. The Idlewild Press, Cornwall, NY.

Hidebehind

Variations: Hide-behind, Hide Behind, Ursus dissimulans (Tryon)

hidebehind

Hidebehinds are very dangerous animals, found throughout American logging country. It gets its name from always hiding behind something, and nobody has ever seen one – to be more specific, no greenhorn has ever seen one.

Experienced lumberjacks know that the hidebehind looks a lot like a bear, walking upright, standing about 5 feet 10 inches to 6 feet tall. Its slender body is covered in long black fur, thick enough that its front and back are interchangeable and its face (if it has one) is unknown. The forelegs are short, powerful, and armed with bear-like claws. The tail is like that of a French sheepdog and is held curled upwards.

A hidebehind is so narrow that it can conceal itself behind a ten-inch tree. No matter how fast you move, the hidebehind moves faster; you can whirl around to catch a glimpse of it, but it will always be out of sight behind a tree. They are extremely patient stalkers, capable of fasting for seven years before finding suitable prey.

Human and grebe intestines are the mainstay of a hidebehind’s diet. It uses its hooked claws to disembowel unwary loggers, pouncing from its hiding place with a terrifying laugh. Sometimes the hidebehind’s peal of laughter is enough to scare prey to death before they are ripped open.

Fortunately hidebehinds loathe the smell of alcohol, and just one bottle of beer is a guarantee of total safety in hidebehind country. Kearney warns that a hidebehind might disembowel a logger before noticing intestinal alcohol, so ideally a good state of inebriation is required.

References

Borges, J. L.; trans. Hurley, A. (2005) The Book of Imaginary Beings. Viking.

Brown, C. E. (1935) Paul Bunyan Natural History. Madison, Wisconsin.

Kearney, L. S. (1928) The Hodag and other Tales of the Logging Camps. Democrat Printing Company, Madison.

Tryon, H. H. (1939) Fearsome Critters. The Idlewild Press, Cornwall, NY.

Dungavenhooter

Variations: Crocodilus hauriens

dungavenhooter

The Dungavenhooter is a Fearsome Critter found lurking in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, although it once ranged as far as Maine. This cunning and dangerous swamp-dweller resembles an alligator with short legs and a thick, powerful tail. Notably, a dungavenhooter lacks a mouth, instead sporting enormous nostrils. The call is a loud snort.

Dungavenhooters ambush prey by hiding in whiffle bushes. They are especially attracted to inebriated loggers, presumably avoiding competition with the teetotal hidebehinds. Anyone passing within range is clubbed with the creature’s tail, then pounded into a gas which the dungavenhooter inhales.

References

Tryon, H. H. (1939) Fearsome Critters. The Idlewild Press, Cornwall, NY.

Shoo Fly

shoo-fly

Noted journalist, humorist, and spinner of tall tales Dan De Quille introduced the Shoo Fly to the world in the October 14, 1870 issue of the Territorial Enterprise. Since then, attempts to find a representative type specimen of this remarkable insect have failed.

Shoo flies are large aquatic flies native to a shallow warm lake fourteen miles northeast of Mud Lake in Washoe County, Nevada. They were discovered and appropriately named by prospectors. A shoo fly is black in color, four inches long and with an abdomen three inches in circumference. The transparent wings resemble those of a horsefly and produce a ten-inch wingspan. Shoo fly larvae are deep green in color, six inches long and four inches wide, and feed on rushes; after roasting they look like sweet potatoes and have a vegetable taste, making them prized food commodities.

Swarms of shoo flies buzz over the waters of the lake and under it. The flies can go underwater and produce an air bubble that forms around their heads. With this organic scuba gear, the flies can stay underwater indefinitely.

One dead fly was brought back to civilization by the prospectors, where it was displayed dangling from a string in Piper’s Saloon at the corner of B and Union streets. But when a San Francisco entomologist volunteered to identify the insect, suggesting that it may be a hymenopteran (bee or wasp) rather than a dipteran fly, De Quille pointed out that the snow storm blew all the flies into their lake, and the proprietors of the saloon refuse to part with their attraction. Furthermore, he added – tongue firmly in cheek – that based on the shoo fly’s “cuspidated tentacles” and the “scarabaeus formation of the thoracic pellicle”, he believed it to be “a genuine bug of the genus “hum””.

References

Lewicki, J. and the editors of LIFE (1960) Folklore of America, part V. LIFE Magazine, Aug. 22, 1960.

Loomis, C. G. (1946) The Tall Tales of Dan De Quille. California Folklore Quarterly, Volume V, No. 1, January 1946.

Haakapainiži

Variations: Hakapainije; Nikama (Giant); Aatakapitsi (Chemehuevi); Taünara; Grasshopper

Haakapainizi temp

Haakapainiži, the Grasshopper as he is known to the Kawaiisu, is an unpleasant ogre from Southern California, although he lives on a rock in a Nevadan lake. His counterpart in Chemehuevi folklore is Aatakapitsi, and their tales are parallel.

Haakapainiži takes several forms, but the best known is that of a giant grasshopper walking on two canes, with a basket on his back. His legs are armed with viciously sharp spikes. His legs are long enough to allow him to walk the 20 miles between Inyokern and Onyx in one step. He also appears as a giant, a harmless-looking old man, and a swarm of grasshoppers. Haakapainiži sings as he walks, hiding his evil intentions.

Children are Haakapainiži’s prey, and he stuffs them in his basket for devouring later. As such he is correctly classified as a bogey, and parents will quell children with warnings of “Haakapainiži is coming!”

Once Haakapainiži met a young girl. He coughed up mucus into his hand and presented it to her, saying “Come get this fat, grandchild”. When she did, he tossed her in her basket and carried her off to Nevada, where he ate her. He repeated the same trick with a little boy, but the lad grabbed onto an overhead branch and escaped the basket.

Another time, Haakapainiži slept alongside the Quail Sisters, who saw no reason to doubt the singing insect’s words. “I will sleep above your heads, and don’t worry, I won’t stretch during my sleep”. Sure enough, the sisters woke up in the morning unscathed. “What a nice old man”, they said to themselves, before Haakapainiži stretched his spiked legs and gouged out their eyes.

The Yucca Date Worm girls fell afoul of Aatakapitsi in the same fashion. Their husband Kwanantsitsi, the Red-Tailed Hawk, restored their eyes, then set out to avenge them. Yet every time he approached Aatakapitsi, the giant seemed to shrink until he disappeared entirely, leaving nothing but a swarm of grasshoppers. Exasperated, Kwanantsitsi hunted down the grasshoppers with a stick until they were all dead. This time, when he backed away, he saw the giant’s lifeless body.

Haakapainiži was killed by Mouse, who heated an arrow-sharpening stone in a fire and tossed it into the grasshopper’s mouth. “Close your eyes and open your mouth, I’ll feed you one of my children”, said Mouse, and allowed the heated rock to burn Haakapainiži’s insides. Both Mouse’s home and the petrified remains of Haakapainiži can be seen at Inyokern.

References

Laird, C. (1976) The Chemehuevis. Malki Museum Press, Morongo Indian Reservation, Banning.

Zigmond, M. L. (1980) Kawaiisu Mythology. Ballena Press, Socorro.